As the Artistic Director at Australian Dance Theatre, Daniel Riley is Exactly Where He Needs to Be

The first Aboriginal dancer to be appointed artistic director of a non-First Nations dance company, Daniel Riley takes his cues from some powerful role models.

Article by Mariela Summerhays

Daniel Riley_1The artistic director and “Tracker” choreographer, Daniel Riley. Photograph by Jonathan van der Knaap.

It is early on the morning of a public holiday, and Daniel Riley, the artistic director at Australian Dance Theatre (ADT), is working. He’s found a moment between rehearsals — at the time, the company was performing two original works in separate cities — to reflect on the path that has brought him here. “I remember being picked up from either soccer or cricket, depending on the season, and swinging via the dance studio to pick up my sister,” he says. Riley soon joined in, the only boy in a room full of girls, tap shoes on his feet. “I’ve got really beautiful memories of being young and having so much fun dancing,” he says. 

Serendipitously, it was through ADT’s founder and inaugural artistic director, Dr Elizabeth Cameron Dalman OAM, that he discovered contemporary dance. Riley was living in Canberra at the time and his father, a primary teacher, sought the advice of Dalman, who was offering classes at the school. “Our spirals connected very early on, when I was 12, then our spirals kind of went like this,” says Riley, rotating his fingers away from each other. “And then we’ve connected again this way, with me leading this company.”

After 12 years as a senior artist and choreographer at the esteemed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander company Bangarra Dance Theatre, and a stint as an independent artist and collaborator, Riley replaced ADT’s outgoing director, Garry Stewart, in 2022. The appointment makes him the first Aboriginal artistic director at a non-First Nations dance company. “I have this beautiful opportunity to hold space for artists,” says Riley, “and to be the one to facilitate artistic exchange and growth, and collaboration and relationship building.”

Through dance, Riley has been able to connect more deeply with his Aboriginal heritage. “I didn’t grow up on Country,” he says. “I didn’t grow up surrounded by my Wiradjuri community.” It was only while touring Dubbo, NSW, during his tenure at Bangarra Dance Theatre, that he learned
of the significance of his surname. This inspired the first work he choreographed, “Riley” (2010), which centres on the
work of a cousin, the late Michael Riley, an acclaimed photographer and filmmaker. Riley describes this piece as dipping a “toe back into my kinship system”.

In his latest work, “Tracker”, Riley explores more of his family story through a multidisciplinary production that utilises dance, text, visual art and song (the national tour continues to Brisbane, from September 20–23, and regional South Australia, from October 31 to November 9). “All the important pillars of our First Nations storytelling,” he explains. One of Riley’s first works since joining the company, it explores the life of his great-great-uncle Alec “Tracker” Riley, a Wiradjuri Elder who served in the police force as a tracker. Alec’s career success — which included solving the missing persons case of Desmond Clark, a two-year-old boy who disappeared near his home — saw him become the first Aboriginal person to gain the rank of sergeant in the New South Wales police force. 

“There’s this incredible kind of strength in a Blak man wearing a colonially implemented uniform in service to a crown that was dispossessing of us — of our land, our lore, our language, our family, our sense of belonging and self,” Riley says. “Yet he served; he felt a great responsibility for the people who lived on our country and who trod on that land.”

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Tyrel Dulvarie wears a colonial uniform in “Tracker”. Photograph by Konathan van der Knaap.

Upon his retirement in 1950, after four decades of service, Alec received a watch from the government. At the time, Aboriginal people were not eligible for a pension; it wasn’t until 16 years later that Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders became entitled to pensions, as well as maternity and unemployment benefits. “He didn’t care what colour they were, but they cared what colour he was,” says Riley. “That respect was never mutual.”

With “Tracker”, Riley aims to give his great-great-uncle the respect he never received outside of his community during his lifetime. “ ‘Tracker’ is the very first fully self-determined Blak work that ADT has ever presented,” says Riley. Created with the support of Ilbijerri Theatre Company, the work is produced by a team of First Nations creatives, including Alec’s granddaughters, whose recollections of spending time with Alec by the river — where he cooked for them and told them off for taking fruit from his trees — are intrinsically woven into the show. “As the first First Nations artistic director of ADT, I think it’s really important that I can tell these stories,” says Riley. “For me, it’s just been such a joy and a privilege to tell the tale of a man nobody really knew.”

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An all-First Nations cast performs in Riley’s multidisciplinary production. Photograph by Pedro Greig.

There’s a moment in the work, an exploration of the Clark case, when Alec is shown discovering the young boy’s bones. A lullaby plays, a song about the moon waking the boy and leading him to a place to sleep under the stars. The poem is read by Riley’s then five-year-old son, the youngest of the tracker’s lineage to contribute to the show. In fact, Alec had known a year earlier — when Clark had first gone missing — where to look for him, but he had been blocked from entering a white landowner’s property on account of being Aboriginal. “Uncle Alec waited for that old man to pass, out of respect, and then he went to the mother and said, ‘I know where he is,’ ” says Riley. 

The production’s final, haunting image is of a dancer putting on a police jacket then a bag of stones being poured over him. “For me, the image and the sound of that is incredibly powerful,” says Riley. “The stones acting as bones or bodies, but also the cultural weight that all First Nations contemporary artists feel — that we are representing a legacy. I am very, very far down river from my ancestors and my artistic Elders and cultural Elders, you know? So there is an ongoing kind of cultural weight to that.”

Is it a burden, carrying that cultural weight? “We are the oldest contemporary dance company in the country, so we are the Elder of contemporary dance in this country,” says Riley, who feels strongly that he is where he’s meant to be. “If I can facilitate storytelling that questions and interrogates the social, cultural, racial and political complexities of Australia, of Australian-ness, and what it is to be Australia, then I feel like I would’ve succeeded in why I’ve been here.

“I wouldn’t say it’s a burden at all,” he continues. “I find it’s an opportunity.”

A ‘Romeo and Juliet’ That Dials Up the Playfulness and the Intimacy

The stars of Bell Shakespeare’s new production, Jacob Warner and Rose Riley, on leaning into lust and making Romeo fun (“We have seen enough earnest, sappy Romeos”).

Article by Victoria Pearson

Romeo and Juliet_3Rose Riley and Jacob Warner in Bell Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet". Photograph courtesy of Bell Shakespeare.

“Did my heart love till now?” Romeo Montague ponders as much after first meeting his new crush Juliet Capulet – soon to be his wife and, for a brief moment, widow – after a party thrown by her overbearing parents. The frenzied love affair struck up between the teenage paramours in this, Shakespeare’s most romantic text, has an infamously unhappy ending. But “Romeo and Juliet” is also considered to be one of the playwright’s more comedic tragedies, rife with puns, verbal sparring and disguises.

The new Bell Shakespeare iteration of the play, currently running at the company’s main studio and theatre space, The Neilson Nutshell, in Sydney’s Dawes Point, dials into this playfulness. The character of Romeo, for example, eschews any “wet blanket” characteristics in the hands of the actor Jacob Warner, who turns him into someone livelier. “I know the play well, but it is my first time playing Romeo. I just didn’t want him to be a sappy wet blanket – that was my only goal,” says Warner.

“We have seen enough earnest sappy Romeos. I wanted this guy to be playful, and I think the evidence is all there to suggest he is.”

Below, the production’s stars, Warner and Rose Riley (who takes on Juliet), sit down with with T Australia to talk about the challenges of the material, working with the show’s director and the Bell Shakespeare’s artistic director, Peter Evans, and letting the play sing.

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Rose Riley and Jacob Warner in Bell Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet". Photograph by Brett Boardman.
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Rose Riley and Jacob Warner in Bell Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet". Photograph by Brett Boardman.

Is this your first time portraying Romeo and Juliet? How did you approach embodying the character?

Rose:

I played Juliet in my first professional production when I was seventeen. I’m thirty now and it’s been amazing to have the chance to play this role again. In approaching the role this time, I wanted to honour Juliet’s complexity and emotional volatility. She feels things deeply and takes what little agency she has to try to live her life for herself. Her relationship with Romeo is also very playful and full of longing and lust, and I was keen to lean into those dynamics.

Jacob:

I don’t think you can ignore that Shakespeare was writing for a specific building, under specific parameters and for a specific audience. The play gives you clues as to how it should be done and I think if you try to impose to much of top of the play, the play will constantly fight to be seen and the audience will sense that dissonance. I like that we have tried to get out of the plays way and let it sing.

In terms of being accessible, I don’t think that is really a problem. We work really hard to work out what we are saying so that hopefully you don’t have to. But in saying that, I like that Shakespeare is pushing the limits of language, he seems in his plays to constantly be telling us that words are not enough to describe the big feelings that humans have, and so he literally invents more words. He asks his audience to take a linguistic leap of faith and I think that’s fun.

The characters of Romeo and Juliet are historically 16 and 13 respectively. How did you manage to immerse yourself in the mindset of teenagers experiencing their first encounter with love?

Rose:

The age of Juliet has been relatively unimportant in my approach to the role. Shakespeare has written a wonderfully complex character, I found that within it I could explore the bounds of my own maturity and immaturity. The important aspects of her youth I think are tied in with her vulnerability, the intensity of her emotions, the exploration of her sexuality and her lack of freedom. The kind of ecstatic love that is explored in this play makes people of all ages act impulsively and passionately.

What do enjoy or find challenging about taking on Shakespeare’s material?

Rose:

I love the challenge of the text, it is so rich and dense and there is so much to discover. It’s exhilarating to me that there are these archaic images and ideas and yet they still ring so true.

Jacob:

I love that you discover something new every night. I’ve been lucky enough to perform in 6 shows with Bell Shakespeare and every show, I find something new every night on stage. It’s like a Where’s Wally, the 20th time you look at it you finally see the wizard was behind the dinosaur the whole time.

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Rose Riley, Robert Menzies and Jacob Warner in Bell Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet". Photograph by Brett Boardman.

The production has been described as “exquisitely intimate” – how did you achieve this intimacy?

Rose:

The spaces we are performing in (The Fairfax in Melbourne and The Neilson Nutshell in Sydney) are both small, and this means the audience is nice and close to all the action on stage. And thanks to Anna Tregloan’s design, our costumes and set are fairly minimalistic which I think adds to the sense of intimacy, as the focus is placed predominantly on the actors and the language.

Jacob:

My friend saw the show in Sydney in The Neilson Nutshell and he said he almost felt like he shouldn’t have been there in some moments because it felt so close and private. That’s kind of fun.

What was the rehearsal and pre-production process like for you working with Peter Evans?

Rose:

Having worked with Peter Evans a few times before, we were able to hit the ground running when it came to rehearsal. I am also dear friends with Jacob, we make each other laugh a lot and that friendship allowed us to feel super comfortable working together. The rehearsal process was rigorous and playful, and I was able to really push myself to my limits with this role.

Jacob:

This is my fifth show with Peter and I can honestly say it’s the least we have spoken. Because usually I am playing a small role, so I sit next to him in rehearsals and chat about the scenes I am not in and bounce ideas about the production as a whole. I am in this show too much to do that – if I am not on the floor doing a scene, I am next door learning a sword fight. He came into my dressing room last night and we chatted about the show and I said to him “This is the first time I have no idea what show I am in”. He said, “It’s pretty weird. It’s like a Japanese ink drawing, sometimes you see a blue wave or a sketch of something, but it’s mostly just these shapes and lines and then it disappears.” I thought that was pretty cool. I’d see that show.

The Ceramists Ushering in a New Era of Surrealism

These makers are finding beauty and strangeness in the everyday, producing winking renderings of prawns, ashtrays and more.

Article by Amanda Fortini

Surreal Ceramics_1From left: Genesis Belanger, “Untitled,” 2019, stoneware, porcelain, unique, courtesy of the artist and Perrotin; Katy Stubbs, “Prawn Cocktail,” 2019, earthenware and glaze, collection of Sarah Stengel, New York, courtesy of the artist and Paterson Zevi.

In his 1869 poetic novel, “Les Chants de Maldoror,” the French writer Isidore Lucien Ducasse, known pseudonymously as the Comte de Lautréamont, describes a young boy who is as “beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table.” Lautréamont’s book was rediscovered and championed by the Surrealists after World War I, and this particular simile became a kind of foundational mantra for the movement. Its juxtaposition of mundane objects in an unexpected setting conveyed the Surrealists’ cheekiness, their love of the incongruous and irrational and their overriding fascination with found curiosities. 

The Surrealists were, as we would put it today, obsessed with the totemic power of the object and its ability to re-enchant humdrum reality: Marcel Duchamp’s punning readymades and Hans Bellmer’s fetishistic dolls, Salvador Dalí’s winkingly evocative lobster phone and Méret Oppenheim’s more overtly suggestive furry teacup. Members of the movement roamed flea markets in search of treasures and documented the bizarre wonders that floated into their subconscious while they slept. On the occasion of the landmark “Surrealist Exhibition of Objects,” held in Paris in May 1936, André Breton, the godfather of the movement, wrote an essay in which he called for the “total revolution of the object” — a goal the Surrealists arguably achieved, as numerous artists, from Louise Bourgeois to Sarah Lucas, have been influenced by their sensibility, images and ideas. 

Nowadays, a group of contemporary artists are making what one might call oddity ceramics: playful, imaginative, funny but often slightly menacing objets d’art. Genesis Belanger, Rose Eken, Alma Berrow and Katy Stubbs are all working in a similar vein (as are a handful of notable others, such as Lindsey Mendick, Jessica Stoller and Woody De Othello). These four artists — all of them, not incidentally, women — take the notion of the readymade and subvert it, refashioning quotidian artifacts (cigarettes, sandwiches, shoes, lipstick, beer cans, sweaty plates of meat or eggs) in ceramics, a medium that was once considered a lowly craft but, in recent years, has been welcomed to the loftier echelon of fine art. Although their humorous, sometimes dark sculptures all share a spiritual DNA, each artist treats the object in her own highly specific, idiosyncratic way, which is perhaps not surprising, given the strange, often diminutive but eerily compelling works they’re creating. 

The Brooklyn-based artist Belanger, 43, who sculpts pastel-coloured ceramics out of porcelain and stoneware, calls her work “Pop Bauhaus with a Surrealist bent.” Belanger worked for several years as a prop stylist’s assistant on campaigns for major brands like Tiffany & Co., Chanel and Victoria’s Secret, and finds inspiration in vintage advertisements — particularly in their use of beauty to induce desire: “It’s borderline offensive to actually offensive when you look at it now with our contemporary eye,” she says. Her unglazed matte clay objects, which she tints with powdered pigments in nostalgic confectionary hues the colours of Jordan almonds, tend to anthropomorphise everyday household articles. A thick, pink tongue extends from a tape dispenser. A foot-long hot dog is tucked into a platform sandal (get it?). Lamps have lips or breasts or arms and wear jewelry. These pieces are beautiful on the surface but rather disquieting beneath, recalling the creepily seductive work of Alina Szapocznikow, Robert Gober and David Lynch, as well as Man Ray’s iconic fashion images of feet, hands and Lee Miller’s tearful eyes. 

Despite their seemingly decorative nature, Belanger’s ceramics aren’t stand-alone curiosities; they tell a larger story — as do the creations of all these artists. Belanger makes installations that conjure an entire mise-en-scène, building the furniture and wiring the lighting herself. “I normally start with what the room is going to be, and then build all the objects to tell a more fleshed out story,” she says. 

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Clockwise from left: Alma Berrow, “Ash’s to Ash’s,” 2021, white earthenware with gold lustre detailing, courtesy of the artist; Rose Eken, “Itchstop and Hoofpick,” 2017, glazed paper clay, courtesy of the artist/V1 Gallery; Rose Eken, “Vegemite,” 2018, glazed paper clay, courtesy of the artist/V1 Gallery.

The Danish artist Eken, 45, explores in-between spaces. While a teenager in Copenhagen, Eken worked as a stage technician for various punk venues, and this period of her life continues to inform her work. “When the audience is not there, when there’s nobody on the stage . . . these spaces are kind of suspended in time,” says Eken. “I’m intrigued by this moment just before something, or just after.” She’s created several “aftermath” installations, as she calls them, in which she reproduces the detritus left in theatres and concert venues in ceramics that are just slightly off in scale: cigarette butts, soda cans, beer bottles, plastic cups, lighters, band T-shirts, electric cables — commonplace items where private and collective memories meet. The viewer is left to impose their subjective narrative on the work: That was the night you got drunk; that was the show where you sneaked backstage. “We have a lot of ideas, subconsciously, about what these objects mean to us,” Eken says. We derive memories, identity, meaning from the sea of stuff in which we swim. 

The London-based Berrow, a 29-year-old British ceramic artist who sells her pieces on Instagram, works in a similar vein, though on a smaller scale. She’s best known for her signature ashtrays that contain stubbed-out cigarettes, along with whatever else one might toss in during the course of an evening — lemon wedges, pistachio shells, spent matches, a steeped tea bag, clementine peels, a gold tooth. “It’s almost like doing a portrait,” she says of her ashtray worlds, which can tell the story of a life — for one couple’s commission she made a smoked joint, an apartment key and a scribbled note of affection — or simply a big night out. 

Berrow took up ceramics in early 2020 while on lockdown at her mother’s house in Dorset; her mother, Miranda, is also a ceramist, so Berrow availed herself of her earthenware, kiln and high-sheen glazes. Berrow makes cigarettes, she explains, because she’s drawn to things that are “caricatures of themselves.” She’s also done oysters, lobsters, prawns, Ritz crackers, pomegranates, a backgammon board — all vaguely retro, often glamorous relics that carry cultural symbolism or baggage. But the common denominator is whatever Berrow finds comical. “A prawn cocktail, for me, is funny,” she says. “I don’t know why, but I find them hysterical.”

The British South African artist Stubbs, 29, also finds humor in unexpected places. “I like to explore the really dark side of human nature,” she says, “but to make it light.” Stubbs, who studied illustration at the School of Visual Arts in New York and now lives in London, makes bright, whimsical, cartoonish work — her palette includes a lot of superhero red, yellow and green — of unexpected oddities: large bowls of spaghetti and clams, a mountainous tower of crayfish and enormous round plates of meat (“disgusting and glossy,” she calls them), a nod to the Swiss artist duo Peter Fischli and David Weiss. Raised on the gothic stories of Edward Gorey and Roald Dahl, Stubbs is interested in gluttony and excess — “this human quality of ours,” she tells me, “where we want more and we want a big pile.” She’s fascinated by humans indulging their baser, more callous instincts, and much of her work tells that tale in some form. “I did one pot about a man kicking another man,” she deadpans. “Sometimes you just feel like kicking somebody.”

It made me think: Is the sudden proliferation of oddity ceramics, which I had previously chalked up to any number of art-world factors — a return to figuration, a renewed interest in traditional crafts, a long overdue focus on female artists — in fact a response to the ongoing darkness of this moment? After all, the original Surrealist movement, with its urge to systematically derange the senses, occurred in the wake of the First World War and its horrors. These are humorous, superficially light pieces — distractions — that also convey a wry awareness of an omnipresent and unsettling strangeness. What’s known and functional has been rendered impractical and pointless, which is fascinating but also kind of scary. As the author Anne Boyer writes in 2019’s “The Undying,” “Enchantment exists when things are themselves and not their uses.” These objects reflect back at us a world that both is and is no longer familiar. 

How Should Art Reckon With Climate Change?

As the environmental crisis accelerates, contemporary artists have taken up the mantle of addressing the precarious present.

Article by Zoë Lescaze

“Swale” (2017), by Mary Mattingly, a floating garden on a barge, with Lower Manhattan in the background. Photography courtesy of the artist and Cloudfactory.“Swale” (2017), by Mary Mattingly, a floating garden on a barge, with Lower Manhattan in the background. Photography courtesy of the artist and Cloudfactory.

Not long after he joined the Princeton University Art Museum in 2006, the curator Karl Kusserow wore a bracelet bearing the phrase “Stop global warming” to a staff meeting. His colleagues noticed (“It was,” he conceded, “kind of ugly and noticeable”), but only a few of them knew it referred to a cause. The term was just getting mainstream traction — this was the year Al Gore released “An Inconvenient Truth” and Vanity Fair launched its first Green issue. But the science suggesting that industrial societies have thrown climatic rhythms wildly out of whack had been around for decades. Just a year earlier, the environmentalist Bill McKibben had railed against the culture’s perceived indifference. “Where are the books? The poems? The plays? The goddamn operas?” he wrote in an op-ed for Grist. “Compare it to, say, the horror of AIDS … which has produced a staggering outpouring of art that, in turn, has had real political effect.” For future generations looking back on the present, “the single most significant item will doubtless be the sudden spiking temperature. But they’ll have a hell of a time figuring out what it meant to us.”

The art world has been making up for lost time in recent years, its overdue compensation crescendoing in the past six months, when more than a dozen exhibitions explicitly confronting climate change have been on view in cities from Santa Fe, New Mexico, to Singapore. What happened? Maybe it was the election of Donald Trump. Maybe it was the rise of extreme weather events in art world bastions — the flooding of downtown Manhattan in 2012 during Hurricane Sandy that had dealers bailing out their gallery basements, or the ongoing wildfires that have forced evacuations in Los Angeles. Whatever the reason, support for environmentally conscious art is surging. In December, the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation and Asia Society in New York announced a new series of $15,000 grants for emerging visual artists whose work “directly addresses the climate crisis.”

Yet more of anything is not necessarily good, especially not at a moment when unchecked production and conspicuous consumption spell planetary demise. As early as 2007, the Chicago-based curator and early supporter of environmental art Stephanie Smith cautioned that a glut of superficially righteous exhibitions could give hits of easy virtue to viewers and museums alike. “If sustainability or climate change become art trends du jour, we risk providing a palliative to ourselves and to our audiences without contributing much to artistic production, nuanced debate or lasting social change,” she wrote in the catalog accompanying “Weather Report: Art and Climate Change,” an early exhibition devoted to the topic organised by Lucy Lippard.

Roni Horn’s “Water, Selected” (2003-07), a permanent installation in Iceland featuring water, collected as ice, from the country’s glacial sources. Photography by Stefan Altenburger, courtesy courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth.
Roni Horn’s “Water, Selected” (2003-07), a permanent installation in Iceland featuring water, collected as ice, from the country’s glacial sources. Photography by Stefan Altenburger, courtesy courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth.
Thomas Cole’s 1826 painting “Falls of the Kaaterskill,” an idyllic rendering of the landscape of upstate New York. Unlike artists today, Romantic painters presented nature as pristine and immutable. Image courtesy Bridgeman Images.
Thomas Cole’s 1826 painting “Falls of the Kaaterskill,” an idyllic rendering of the landscape of upstate New York. Unlike artists today, Romantic painters presented nature as pristine and immutable. Image courtesy Bridgeman Images.

But alongside the inevitably facile attempts — paintings of burning forests, icebergs melting away in urban squares, clumps of dead sea grass pinned to gallery walls, alarmist works that function as little more than propaganda — something else has emerged: a new, sometimes inadvertent form of protest art, one that avoids agitprop and in that way subverts ideas of what protest art should do and can be. Consider the former library on a bluff overlooking Stykkishólmur, a small harbour town on the western coast of Iceland. Here stand 24 clear glass pillars of water, originally harvested from glaciers around the country. The three-metre cylinders, luminous in the mercurial light of the changing sky, stretch and blur the silhouettes of visitors as they move and the weather shifts. It is a place to melt and dissolve, an ode to constant flux. The American artist Roni Horn, who has made regular trips to Iceland since 1975, conceived of the project, “Vatnasafn/Library of Water” (2007-present), as a contemplative space and a community centre, a site for readings, residencies, chess games and reflections on weather. With collaborators, she collected weather stories from dozens of locals; visitors can add their own, creating what she calls “a collective self-portrait.” The library subtly conjures a future in which ice only exists in written accounts — already, one of the glaciers from which Horn collected water has vanished. But Horn didn’t intend her piece to be a comment on climate change, and that may be why it is such an effective place to reflect on where we end and the world begins.

McKibben was right to remind the art world of the AIDS crisis and of the role visual culture played in combating the institutional negligence of the U.S. government. But climate change is a different kind of crisis, one that requires a different kind of art. This is a catastrophe in which we are all complicit and all at risk. The scale is simply too vast for any didactic artistic critique to feel adequate. As a species with relatively short lives and even shorter attention spans, humans struggle to grasp the long-term scope of an evolving emergency they will not live to experience in full. The most effective protest art, then, does not confront us with evidence we’ve already proven perfectly willing to ignore. Instead, it broadens the narrow ways in which we tend to conceive of time and our position within larger ecologies, without necessarily mentioning climate change by name. The resulting works are not demands for immediate action but ones that expand our psychological capacity to act.

Environmental destruction has been a fact of life since at least the Industrial Revolution. It’s only recently, though, that artists have begun to acknowledge these issues in their work. The Hudson River School painters, for instance, may have privately lamented ecological ruin, but their works depicted rapidly vanishing wilderness as timeless, immutable and impervious to human influence. “I cannot but express my sorrow that the beauty of such landscapes are quickly passing away — the ravages of the ax are daily increasing — the most noble scenes are made desolate, and oftentimes with a wantonness and barbarism scarcely credible in a civilised nation,” wrote Thomas Cole, who helped popularise an idealised and sublime view of the natural world. When Cole painted his early masterpiece “Falls of the Kaaterskill” in 1826, the Hudson Valley site was already a tourist destination complete with a railed viewing platform. Cole, however, eliminated these interventions and added a small, solitary Native American figure to convey a sense of untouched grandeur.

Explicitly environmental art — works that address human-authored threats to local and global ecologies — did not appear until after the 1962 publication of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” the celebrated exposé of chemical pesticides, which made pollution an urgent national cause. Images of burning rivers, oil spills and animal casualties prompted 20 million Americans — one-tenth of the U.S. population at the time — to stage demonstrations in towns across the country for clean water and air on April 22, 1970. The artist Robert Rauschenberg, who grew up despising the rank smells of the oil refinery in his heavily polluted hometown of Port Arthur, Texas, responded with “Earth Day,” a poster benefiting the American Environmental Foundation, that same year: Black-and-white photographs of pitted landscapes, factories, trash and an endangered gorilla surround a nicotine-brown image of a bald eagle. Nature had ceased to be a pure and timeless muse for artists, instead becoming something vulnerable that humans had abused. In 1974, the photographer Robert Adams published “The New West,” a book depicting human-altered landscapes in Colorado: suburbs, strip malls and land for sale on the outskirts of cities and towns, areas where the natural and the manufactured collide and compromise each other. This period also saw the emergence of land art — vast outdoor projects that interacted with nature — some of which were actively environmentalist in spirit, notably the work of Agnes Denes, whose most iconic works include an entire forest planted in Finland between 1992 and 1996.

Mattingly’s “Limnal Lacrimosa” (2021), for which the artist circulated snowmelt and rainwater inside an old brewery in Montana. Photography courtesy of the artist and Robert Mann Gallery.
Mattingly’s “Limnal Lacrimosa” (2021), for which the artist circulated snowmelt and rainwater inside an old brewery in Montana. Photography courtesy of the artist and Robert Mann Gallery.

More recently, artists have made these fraught borderlands their canvas. Mary Mattingly, who grew up in a Connecticut farming town where the drinking water was polluted, has focused on public works that often involve entire communities. Riled by a century-old ordinance that made it illegal to forage on public land, Mattingly planted a garden on a barge, docking it at sites around New York City, including in the South Bronx. People who lack easy access to grocery stores could come gather as much fresh produce as they wanted. With massive crop failures and famine predicted by climate scientists, the work speaks to the future as much as it does the food access problems dogging the present.

“Limnal Lacrimosa,” Mattingly’s new project, is currently on view in a former brewery in Kalispell, Mont. Melting snow on the roof is channeled inside, where it trickles into lachrymatory vessels — containers that ancient Roman mourners used to catch their tears. The water overflows, spilling onto the floor, before getting pumped back up. The space echoes with drips that keep “some sort of abstract glacial time,” she said: slower when it’s cold, faster when it’s warm. Inspired by the accelerating cycles of melt in nearby Glacier National Park, the piece is an oblique way of engaging with global warming in a state where, Mattingly said, “it doesn’t seem as realistic always to talk about climate change in a way that I might in New York, where it’s pretty accepted.” Still, the work has become a means of establishing common ground. “The political layer comes last,” she said. “Usually, I walk people through it, and then by the end of the conversation, I talk about how fast the cycles of rain and melt are changing. And people completely agree. But if I start with climate change or if I even say ‘climate change’ at all … you can tell people bristle, and they’re not really up for that.”

Mattingly’s is part of a group of works that encourage the kind of behaviour essential to combating climate change — collaboration and cooperation between strangers. What the artists behind these works have in common is their incessant self-examination: How are they contributing to the disaster through their art? In 2019, the painter Gary Hume (whose canvases do not depict especially environmental subject matter) asked his studio manager to research the emissions associated with shipping his works from London, where he is partly based, to New York, where he was having a show at Matthew Marks gallery. Danny Chivers, a climate change researcher, found that sea freight would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 96 percent compared to air. “There was no downside,” said Hume. Shipping the work by sea was also significantly cheaper. “I was ashamed at myself that it had taken me so long,” he said.

For some, the idea of environmentally conscious contemporary art is a contradiction in terms. The art world is almost comically ill-equipped to address climate change, because the commercial sector runs on unbridled decadence. At Art Basel Miami Beach last November, Dom Pérignon launched a yacht concierge service that, for $30,000, would deliver 33 vintage bottles and caviar to anchored boats in Biscayne Bay and waterfront homes on artificial islands. Dealers court artists with dinners full of fist-size truffles. Collectors reward their advisers with Gucci totes. By masking luxury consumerism in lofty ideals, the art world offers itself up for satire.

In fact, the day-to-day operations of many galleries are built around more banal forms of excess that elide easy parody but are equally pernicious. Art fairs like Frieze and Art Basel, which have editions throughout the year in cities around the world, entail the construction of temporary venues that are destroyed after the parties wrap up, the private jets take off and everybody moves on to the next one. Art fairs “by their nature are inherently unsustainable,” said Heath Lowndes, the managing director of the Gallery Climate Coalition (GCC), an international group attempting to reduce the environmental impact of the industry. “If you think about Frieze, it’s a temporary structure. It’s like building a small town that lasts for five days.”

An image from the photographer Robert Adams’s 1974 series “The New West,” which revealed the encroaching influence of civilisation on natural landscapes. Photography by Robert Adams, courtesy of Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco.
An image from the photographer Robert Adams’s 1974 series “The New West,” which revealed the encroaching influence of civilisation on natural landscapes. Photography by Robert Adams, courtesy of Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco.

The GCC offers members a means of calculating their emissions and asks them to pledge reductions of at least 50 percent by 2030. Originally designed for galleries, the organisation now counts museums, auction houses, shipping companies, nonprofits, artists and advisers among its 700 members, some of whom have publicly released the results of their carbon reports. Thomas Dane Gallery, which maintains branches in London and Naples, Italy, reported about 100 tons of CO2 emissions associated with art transport for the year 2018-19. Hauser & Wirth, which has 14 branches and represents dozens of artists and estates around the world, reported producing close to 8,600 tons of CO2 in 2019, more than half of which stemmed from art shipments.

The group is lobbying insurance companies to adjust boilerplate contracts that needlessly stipulate air transport instead of sea freight, as well as creating networks through which galleries can share and reuse exhibition elements (plinths, pedestals) and shipping materials (crates, blankets and other packaging). But the biggest hurdle may be adjusting the expectations of high-profile collectors accustomed to instant gratification. Gallery directors, said Lowndes, have told him they worry that insisting on sea freight or “scruffy” recycled packaging might cost them sales. These are not “technological issues,” said Lowndes. “These are social hurdles.”

An even more glaring contradiction is the fact that art world institutions, the museums we tend to afford a higher ethical status than the commercial sector, rely on funding from the very private enterprises that have contributed so much to the crisis. “These days, it isn’t the Medicis who are using the arts to launder their reputations — it’s corporations and billionaires, including fossil fuel giants and the banks who fund them,” wrote Chivers in a recent piece for The Art Newspaper. Although a number of arts venues “have dropped their oil company branding in the last five years, some, including London’s British Museum, still have promotional deals with the likes of BP, providing a veneer of respectability to the companies most responsible for the climate crisis.”

The museum rebuttal usually goes something like this: Corporate funding comes without strings, and sponsors do not influence programming. And yet nearly every major institution that is tasked with protecting our cultural heritage is underwritten in some way by corporations and people with varying degrees of involvement in the destruction of the planet. In New York, the majority of protests against what activists term toxic philanthropy have focused on perceived human rights violations by individual trustees. Warren Kanders resigned from the board of the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2019 amid outrage over his company’s production of tear gas canisters. That same year, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art barred donations from the Sackler family for its role in creating the opioid crisis. Last year, Leon Black agreed not to seek re-election as chairman of the board of the Museum of Modern Art after protests from artists and activists who cited his close financial ties to the convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.

When will the environmental politics of board members draw the same ire from activists? There is little sustained outrage over the fact that in order to enter the Met, you first have to commune with a Las Vegas-style fountain by the front entrance that bears the name of David Koch, who denied the existence of climate change up until his death in 2019 and, in the words of Greenpeace, “actively financed efforts to rally the public against the scientific community.” Last spring, protesters staged several demonstrations directed at Patricia Phelps de Cisneros, a MoMA trustee whose husband, Gustavo Cisneros, sits on the advisory board of the Barrick Gold Corporation, which mines gold and copper in 13 countries. “When you look at the Barrick Gold company and we think about the presence of people like the Cisneros family, you’re looking very blatantly at ecocide,” said Michael Rakowitz, a sculptor and installation artist who has been a prominent figure in related protests. “You’re looking at the poisoning of entire communities and spots of land and rivers in Central and South America.”

But trustees at other New York museums with ties to mining operations and the fossil fuel industry have so far avoided controversy. Daniel Och, whose hedge fund paid $413 million in penalties over a foreign corruption scheme that involved bribing officials in Libya, Chad, Niger, Guinea and the Democratic Republic of Congo to secure exploratory mining and energy concessions, sits on the MoMA board alongside de Cisneros. Susan K. Hess, whose husband is the chief executive of the oil and gas supplier Hess Corporation, is a trustee at the Whitney. When environmental art exhibitions occur at institutions with funding that undercuts their professed ideals, those exhibitions become a smoke screen for the ethical dissonance of the art world. “One of the things that critical and political art does is reinforce the narcissism of the field and our self-representations in fighting the good fight and being on the right side of history,” said the artist Andrea Fraser, whose work often critiques the art world’s machinations. “I don’t think we’re part of the solution. I think we’re part of the problem.”

John Cage’s “Organ²/ASLSP,” begun in 2001, in which an organ plays a piece of music over the course of about 640 years. Photography by Ronald Göttel, courtesy John Cage Organ Foundation, Halberstadt.
John Cage’s “Organ²/ASLSP,” begun in 2001, in which an organ plays a piece of music over the course of about 640 years. Photography by Ronald Göttel, courtesy John Cage Organ Foundation, Halberstadt.

If our current relationship to time produces inertia, some of the most powerful works today ask us what we want the future to look like, at a moment when the very prospect of a future is in question.

With this in mind, I travelled to a church in the remote town of Halberstadt, Germany, in February to see the world’s slowest musical performance, which, 21 years on, is still in its infancy. An experimental composition by John Cage called “Organ²/ASLSP,” the piece began in 2001 and will end in 2640. Originally written for piano in 1985, the score carries the provocative tempo instruction “As slow as possible.” Sandbags suspended from the pedals of a small wooden organ in the transept maintain a deep, droning seven-note chord, which has been reverberating continuously since 2020. Chord changes are rare — they usually happen every few years — and in February, a crowd had gathered to witness one. They waited for the new sound, radiating the same jittery, communal reverence that precedes a total eclipse: The chill air inside the medieval church hummed with suspense.

Cage reworked the piece for organ in 1987 and, in 1998, a few years after his death, a group of composers, organists, philosophers and musicologists began discussing the limits of slowness, considering the life expectancy of wooden organs. The piece will depend on generations of human cooperation and care to survive. Both the organ and the St. Burchardi Church, which is older than Magna Carta, will need maintenance to endure. The project forces listeners to think beyond their own life spans, to participate in something that not even their great-great-great-great-grandchildren will live to see finished. The organ represents a relationship with unborn strangers; each chord asks us to ensure that there is a future in which the next one can sound.

Six hundred and eighteen years from now, when the performance is slated to end, the town of Halberstadt may be flooded, said Rainer O. Neugebauer, a retired social sciences professor who leads the foundation responsible for the piece. It may be a desert. Tornadoes may have tugged the medieval building off the ground. In the last 20 years, unusually strong winds have ripped away parts of the roof, sending tiles crashing into the space around the organ. Still, he chooses to believe that it will endure. Great art, he said, connects us to what might yet be possible.

It was time for the chord change. Ute Schalz-Laurenze, the white-haired former director of a local music program and competition, gently removed the pipe playing G sharp and the drone of the organ softened into a new sound that will echo through the battered church for the next two years. The crowd listened and, as the note changed, they cheered.

Neugebauer does not know whether the organ project in Halberstadt can physically or financially survive. But for him, that uncertainty is part of the piece. Gesturing to the organ, he said, “This is my idea of hope.”